Want to be a good leader? Don’t enact these microaggressions, then
“For someone who didn’t come from a well-known university, you’re actually pretty good.”
Ah, doesn’t that sound like a line from a classic office sitcom that thrives on cringe humor? Tell you what—it’s not. It was a comment I overheard during my internship at a local advertising agency. At that time, I genuinely had no clue about what to make of it.
All I knew was that it wasn’t something a copy chief (a.k.a. somebody who must be the #1 anti-discrimination advocate in the workplace) should say to a new hire, or anyone at that.
Fast forward a few years, and I finally realized that it was a prime example of what we call microaggression—or subtle acts of exclusion if we’re being more technical. Here are some burning questions, though: How exactly do these seemingly unintentional jabs affect the workplace? Why is awareness of them (and of passive-aggressive ones) crucial for employees, especially those aiming to climb the corporate ladder?
The ABCs of microaggression
You see, that internship incident happened half a decade ago. I wasn’t the target of the backhanded remark either; yet the impact it left on me was so huge that I still (clearly) remember it to this day. So, it got me thinking: If a mere bystander already felt uneasy, what more must it be for the person it was directly aimed at?
And that’s precisely the thing about microaggressions. They are tiny cracks in the foundation of inclusivity—limiting, divisive, and ultimately detrimental. They have a way of building up, taking a toll on individuals, and most of the time, eroding the team morale.
Microaggressions are tiny cracks in the foundation of inclusivity—limiting, divisive, and ultimately detrimental
Meaning, letting these microaggressions fester—let alone committing them yourself—automatically makes you unfit for a leadership role. Supervising a pack means creating a safe and healthy space for everyone, and doing the opposite can be a one-way ticket to ineffective leadership.
So, let’s break down microaggressions further and explore why they’re the last thing you want in your corporate toolkit.
In a nutshell, verbal microaggressions are the linguistic landmines at work, often camouflaged as compliments or casual comments. They usually stem from deep-rooted biases and stereotypes—those remarks that would make you pause and think, “Did they really just say that?”
- Accent mockery: Making fun of an employee’s regional accent and/or using exaggerated and derogatory imitations of how they speak, most especially if they come from a different province, region, or country.
- Invasive personal questions: Asking overly personal questions about their family, relationship status, financial situation, or anything that can be seen as intrusive and disrespectful.
- Ethnic jokes: Sharing jokes or comments that stereotype or demean individuals from specific ethnic (or cultural) backgrounds (e.g. mocking the way they dress or eat).
- Language shaming: Criticizing and belittling colleagues who may not be fluent in a specific language.
- Gender stereotyping: Assuming that certain roles or tasks are better suited for a particular gender and making remarks like “You’re good at this because you’re a man/woman.”
- Backhanded compliments: Offering praise that’s laced with a hidden insult—like the classic “You’re smarter than you look.”
Tolerating these fosters an environment where individuals feel undervalued and judged based on factors that have no bearing on their abilities. As an effective leader, it’s your responsibility to steer clear of these linguistic traps and encourage open, respectful, and unbiased communication in the team.
Behavioral microaggressions are subtle slights that can ruin team cohesion and trust. Although non-verbal, they speak volumes about your attitude and destroy work dynamics. These actions aren’t as obvious as verbal jabs but they’re equally destructive.
- Exclusionary cliques: Forming exclusive groups or cliques within the workplace that intentionally leave out certain individuals.
- Cultural insensitivity: Organizing company events and team-building activities that are insensitive to the employee body’s diverse religious and cultural backgrounds.
- Microinequities: Constantly interrupting, ignoring, and diminishing the contributions of certain employees in meetings (e.g. mispronouncing a rank-and-file employee’s name).
- Unequal workload distribution: Assigning menial (or less desirable tasks) to individuals based on their gender, age, and/or other personal characteristics.
- Excessive monitoring: Subjecting some people to more supervision, scrutiny, or performance evaluations than others based on stereotypes or biases.
- Selective listening: Failing to address concerns or suggestions from some individuals, thereby creating an atmosphere where their voices are not heard or valued.
When not actively addressed, these behaviors can lead to disengagement, decreased productivity, and even attrition. A great leader understands that fostering a cohesive and productive team requires treating every member with respect and reasonable fairness.
Behavioral microaggressions are subtle slights that can ruin team cohesion and trust. Although non-verbal, they speak volumes about your attitude and destroy work dynamics
Simply put, environmental microaggressions are all about the atmosphere and vibe. They’re like the hidden architects of an unwelcoming workplace. These microaggressions shape the atmosphere and culture of a company, often more subtly than verbal or behavioral ones. They’re the background music of your office—unobtrusive but setting the tone.
- Unequal resources: Allocating resources unevenly, which can lead to disparities in opportunities for professional development.
- Inaccessible facilities: Failing to provide (easily) accessible facilities for employees with disabilities—like wheelchair ramps and designated parking spaces.
- Tokenism: Hiring and/or promoting individuals from underrepresented groups solely to demonstrate “diversity” without actually involving them in decision-making or providing them with meaningful roles.
- Lack of inclusive policies: Not having policies or practices in place to address diversity, equity, and inclusion—or ineffectively implementing such policies).
These factors send powerful signals about what’s valued and who belongs. A true leader understands that genuine inclusivity goes beyond superficial gestures—it’s a commitment to creating a workplace where everybody has equal opportunities for growth.